In a victory for animal rights advocates—and the animals on factory farms they seek to protect—a federal judge on Monday ruled Idaho's controversial "ag-gag" law unconstitutional in a decision that said criminalizing the undercover documentation of livestock abuse violates both free speech and the equal protection clause.
"The facts show the state's purpose in enacting the statute was to protect industrial animal agriculture by silencing its critics." —U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill
"The effect of the statute will be to suppress speech by undercover investigators and whistleblowers concerning topics of great public importance: the safety of the public food supply, the safety of agricultural workers, the treatment and health of farm animals, and the impact of business activities on the environment," U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill stated in his 28-page ruling.
Under the law, people filming agricultural operations without permission in Idaho face up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. By comparison, a jail sentence for an animal cruelty conviction is capped at six months and a maximum fine of $5,000.
However, as Winmill's ruling continued, the legal arguments in favor of banning undercover investigations—long a tactic of animal rights groups with no other way to prove or expose such abuse—did not stand up to scrutiny. "Audio and visual evidence is a uniquely persuasive means of conveying a message," he wrote, "and it can vindicate an undercover investigator or whistleblower who is otherwise disbelieved or ignored. Prohibiting undercover investigators or whistleblowers from recording an agricultural facility's operations inevitably suppresses a key type of speech because it limits the information that might later be published or broadcast."
In the end, the judge concluded, "the facts show the state's purpose in enacting the statute was to protect industrial animal agriculture by silencing its critics."
Though other states have passed similar laws in recent years, the decision by Winmill marks the first time a federal court has struck down such legislation. And though the Idaho ruling could be appealed to a higher federal court, it is also likely to spur additional challenges in those other states.
Instigated by an undercover operation by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals, Idaho's law was signed into law in 2014 by the state's Republican Gov. Butch Otter, but was challenged in court by a coalition of welfare advocates, led by attorneys with the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
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ALDF called Winmill's ruling a "landmark victory" for all those represented by the suit, which in addition to the tens of thousands nameless animals, included a broad-based public interest coalition of national nonprofits, including the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Idaho, journalists Will Potter and Blair Koch, Farm Sanctuary, and the Center for Food Safety (CFS). In a joint statement, the coalition said:
Undercover video and photography has exposed numerous shocking practices that are "industry standards." These pervasive, systematic procedures include routine mutilation, including debeaking birds with electrically heated blades and castrating male animals by slicing open their scrotum and ripping their testicles out without pain relief or anesthesia and intensive confinement—where animals are literally unable to turn around for months on end. Exposes have also detailed the sickening farming conditions resulting in contaminated meat products—posing serious health risks to the public—and life threatening conditions for farm workers.
These investigations, and the subsequent media coverage, have led to food safety recalls, citations for environmental and labor violations, evidence of health code violations, plant closures, criminal convictions, and civil litigation. The Idaho statute unconstitutionally and unwisely prohibits efforts to bring violations of state and federal laws relating to food safety, environmental protection, and animal handling to the attention of the public and law enforcement.
Ag-Gag laws are notoriously unsupported by the public. Nationwide thirty-two similar Ag-Gag measures have failed. Currently, seven states have Ag-Gag laws on the books. This Idaho decision is just the first step in defeating similar Ag-Gag laws across the country.
Mercy for Animals also hailed the ruling, saying it is now looking forward to continuing its work and producing more undercover videos in Idaho.
"Idaho’s lawmakers should be ashamed of wasting precious time and valuable resources enacting unconstitutional laws that threaten animal welfare, food safety, workers’ rights and the environment," said Nathan Runkle, president of Mercy for Animals, in response to the ruling. "We hope they will now focus their efforts on improving animal welfare and rewarding the brave whistleblowers who uncover criminal activity in Idaho’s agricultural operation."